Race Report: UTMB Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS) 2018

For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to acquiring enough points to enter the UTMB lottery. Last year I completed the 101km CCC, a hundred miler in the UK this summer, and the final piece of the puzzle was the 121km TDS – another of the UTMB events.

Naively, I assumed that at only 121km the Trail des Ducs de Savoie would be a nice intermediate step – a kind of apprenticeship to the UTMB. The race was introduced in 2009 and traces the Grande Randonée paths through the Aosta valley in Italy, and then the Beaufort, Tarentaise and finally Mont-Blanc valley in France. 

Chamonix heaving with the annual influx of trail runners, supporters and crews.

Amy and I drove up to Chamonix the afternoon before and checked into our apartment – it wasn’t the best facility but was at least only 5 minutes walk from the centre of town and the start/finish line. Registration and kit check passed without a hitch, although the queues were long so the whole thing took a good hour or so. 

Long lines at kit check – make sure you don’t forget anything.

Despite the clear blue skies, blazing sun and warm temperatures, the race organisers were warning of poor weather the next few days and the mandatory equipment check was quite heavily geared towards ensuring we all had waterproof clothing and working mobiles. Back in the apartment, I got an automated text from the organisers that due to bad weather the race route would be modified and would start two hours later – at least I would get longer in bed; so with that in mind I did one final kit check and set my alarm for 5am.

The next morning, the apocalyptic weather hadn’t materialised, and after the shuttle buses had deposited us on the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel in Courmayeur and the sun came up, the warnings seemed even more overblown as we were treated to the start of a glorious day. However the last announcement before the start said that as soon as we hit the Col de Petit Saint Bernard and crossed into France, the weather would become decidedly less pleasant.

The start line in Courmayeur

The start was just like last year’s CCC – and the delayed start meant that more spectators were out to cheer us through the streets. The first trails we hit were quite wide and this meant that the usual bottlenecks you experience in mass start ultras weren’t really a problem. Over the course of 10km or so we climbed over 1000m before dropping down to Lac Combal. The terrain here was stunning – surrounded by glaciers and sweeping views I started to get an idea of why this course is well known for being more rugged and remote than its UTMB siblings.

The early running in Italy was in perfect conditions.
Running through the Italian Alps, surrounded by glaciers and alpine streams.

After leaving Lac Combal the hot sun and clear skies meant that I exhausted my water supplies quickly on the hard climb up to Col Chavannes, but dropping off the other side we descended a long 4×4 track which allowed me to effortlessly knock off 7-8km at 5:30min/km. I was a bit worried this was going too fast and I would pay for it later but it was great to get some distance under my belt.

The race reflected in the calm waters of Lac Combal, as we approached the first checkpoint in the distance.
The descent after Lac Combal was fast.

Finally the rain came. On the climb up to the Col du Petit Saint Bernard the clouds became more ominous and then suddenly, around 30 minutes from the next checkpoint the heavens opened and we were soaked by ferocious, driving rain. That mandatory kit came in handy as despite the waterproof jacket, gloves and hat, I was shivering by the time I got to the aid station which thankfully was serving hot pasta soup.

Afterwards the descent into Bourg Saint-Maurice was a tough one – made all that much harder that we could see the town in the distance from a long way off so it seemed to take ages to arrive, but at least it was drying out and warming up. The checkpoint was heaving with people as it was the first point where outside assistance was allowed. I’d asked Amy not to come to the CPs because they were pretty remote, and I could rely on the drop bag at Cormet de Roselend instead. 

A very welcome water stop at Séez, after the long, hot descent towards Bourg Saint-Maurice.

Every race report and review of the TDS I have read seems to have one thing in common – the climb out of Bourg Saint-Maurice and up to the Cormet de Roselend is steep and relentless. The almost 2000m of vertical in the late afternoon sun (for most of us) and with limited water opportunities this was something that loomed large on the profile map after relatively easy running of the first 50km. Our weather-affected route meant that the climb wasn’t constant, but instead it kept dropping back down, losing height and adding distance before eventually reaching the Cormet de Roselend after what seemed like an eternity. Cracks of forked lightning pointed the way we were headed as well as signalling the meteorological conditions that would be in store for us as night fell.

A few KMs of the adjusted route to Cormet de Roselend were on tarmac, which just seemed to make the climb feel like it went on for even longer.
The last few minutes of daylight on the climb to the Cormet de Roseland – you can see what little sun that  broke through the clouds shining on the mountain on the right.

Cormet de Roselend was the first opportunity to access my drop bag, and I got changed into new layers and socks which gave more of a psychological boost than much else. I took on some soup and hot, sweet tea and had a ten minute doze on my backpack before heading back out into the night.

More climbing – this time as the rain started to come down harder and the trails got higher and more technical, the pace slowed as we picked our way through the trails in the dark. However going up was far better than the following descent down to La Gittaz. Rivers of mud, reminiscent of last year’s CCC meant we were slipping and sliding constantly. As we edged through a gorge we passed a blazing bonfire in the night, surrounded by a team of emergency service responders and it pretty soon became clear why they were stationed there as a precaution, as just further on we tentatively edged our way over wet, slippery rocks with a steep drop to a raging torrent on our right. 

Thankfully this was successfully navigated and we passed through the time check at La Gittaz where I followed the line of headlamps snaking up into the darkness towards Les 2 Nants.

More slipping and sliding on the descent (can you spot a theme here?) towards the refuge at Col du Joly where the sound of Foreigner, wanting to know what love is, was blaring from the speakers to guide us in. Lack of sleep, fatigue, darkness and a thriving bar pumping out music up in the middle of nowhere contributed to the surrealism of the experience. 

The trails were becoming ridiculously slippery now and on the exit from the Col du Joly aid station I ended up sliding down the hill like I was Frank Spencer (if you’re not British from a certain era you will need to Google it) on roller skates – my trekking poles looped over my wrists didn’t help and I slid down on my back. Thankfully no major harm was done and soon the trail turned to more hard packed 4×4 track I was able to reach Les Contamines by around 5am.

All Downhill From Here?

From here on I was sure I had this nailed. There was ‘just’ the Col de Tricot to pass and then it was more or less all downhill to Chamonix; in total no more than another 25km but encompassing another 1300m or so of climbing. The climb up to Tricot however was incredibly steep – although this had been the theme for the whole race, coming after 100km it was tough and people were dropping like flies, allowing me to make up nearly 50 places on this climb alone. More than once I was treated to a rendition of somebody vomiting into the undergrowth as I stood surveying the natural beauty around me.

Half way up the brutal climb to Col de Tricot looking back down into the valley.

After passing the Col the technical trails on the other side were fairly runnable as things were drying up and despite the heavy clouds it was shaping up to be a nice day in Chamonix. Passing the Nid de l’Aigle tramway I arrived in Les Houches where I really didn’t stay long – I’d been told it was 8km flat run into Chamonix and I was keen to get this done with.
We had to cross the motorway via  bridge to get onto the back forest track that led into Chamonix and after so long on remote trails it was amazing to be cheered and applauded by so many people on the streets. Nearly every car that went past would honk it’s horn which just helped add to the renewed enthusiasm.

The back run into Chamonix was more ‘undulating’ than flat meaning a couple of sections were power-hiked but I managed to keep running  for the most part and many others were finding the same second-wind. In fact between Les Contamines and the finish line I improved my ranking by over 100 places, I think helped by the cool night with it’s slow pace – I was able to avoid a lot of eating to let my stomach recover.

The sun was coming out and the heat starting to build, but by 11am I was heading into the outskirts of Chamonix. More and more cheers and clapping from people on the trail encouraging me home, and the closer I got to the finish the more intense this became. I managed to speed up from a slow trot to a relative sprint by the time I reached the last 200m, responding to the cheers of the crowd, high-fiving and banging on the crowd barriers. 

It was a struggle to climb onto the podium but worth it for the shot.
Tired but very, very happy.

I crossed the finish line in 27hrs 13m 17s, coming under my target time of 28hrs, and nearly 6 hours ahead of the cutoff. 

Plastic Is Not Fantastic

This year the UTMB organisers have announced that they’ve removed single use plastic cups, plates and utensils from the course which I think is a fantastic idea. This meant that we all had to bring our own utensils – the only downside was that at aid stations I needed to keep getting up and down again (eg. after finishing soup, get up to get a Coke, then get a bowl of pasta) rather than be able to take everything I wanted over to the table. Next time I’ll probably bring a couple of cups/bowls rather than just the one.

The Race in Stats

My pace throughout the event – you can definitely see it dropping off through the muddy night section.
My ranking throughout the race – fairly consistent after Bourg Saint-Maurice.


Runner’s Page: https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/live/runner/7481

Race Report: Jurassic Coast 100 Miler

The Jurassic Coast 100 follows the historic clifftop trails along England’s southwest coast.

I’m in the process of accumulating points to eventually enter the UTMB one year. The furthest I’ve ever run was last year’s 101km CCC so I figured that a non-mountain trail like the Jurassic Coast 100 might be an easier introduction to the 100 mile distance than some of the Alpine monsters on my doorstep.

Climb South West are a Devon-based organisation who deliver a range of rock climbing and mountaineering activities, but have recently branched out into hosting fully-supported ultra distance trail races including 50km and 100km races along the Jurassic Coast in South West England.

The Jurassic Coast trail covers some of Britain’s most scenic coastline – apparently.

2018 saw the first incarnation of the 100-mile event – taking in the whole of the Jurassic Coast Trail between Studland Beach near Poole, in Dorset, to Exmouth in Devon. The route would also include the 100km and 50km races which would start at later points and follow the same trail, from Chesil Beach and Lyme Regis respectively.

Relive ‘JC100 mile’

Although not particularly high (the highest point is around 150m), the route is like a row of hacksaw teeth with constant steep ups and downs as the paths trace the cliff edges of the coastal trail and the 100 mile route accumulates 5000m of vertical height gain. Still, that’s half the height gain of the UTMB so I figured this would be manageable within the 36 hour cut-off limit.

Amy and I had spent the week in the UK visiting friends, and luckily we have some good friends who live close to the start line in Poole which meant I could avoid an early start. Mark and Amy accompanied me down to Studland beach where I managed to avoid the rush and get registered quickly and efficiently. That just left some double-checking of kit and rampant abuse of the National Trust toilets before the pre-race briefing, after which we were off at 9am sharp.

Pre-race briefing at Studland Beach in Dorset

The start of the race on Studland Beach. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

The weather was misty and cool, but this suited me fine as heat has always been my nemesis in ultra marathons. We left Studland beach and ran along the hardpacked sand where the sea meets the shore for a couple of kilometres before making our way up onto the coastal path. In theory the route was easy to follow. Keep the sea on your left and keep going for 100 miles and eventually we should end up in Exmouth. In reality there were many points in the early stages where the route deviated, or where it was easy to miss a turn – especially around the many seaside towns and villages, and at one point about 30km in, where myself and a few others carried on oblivious in the mist until two runners ahead came back towards us having checked with some hikers – we’d managed to add an extra 4-5 miles on top.

Still smiling despite the extra miles after getting lost. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Specatators along the route

On the first day the mist obscured a lot of the great views – Old Harry Rocks, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door. However it had the advantage of keeping the temperature down and meant that the running was fairly easy.

 

Only 63 runners signed up for the 100 miler but in the early stages we stayed bunched together and there was lots of chatting and camaraderie.

The trail was generally easy to follow but sometimes it was all too simple to take a diversion. 

The view from the trail

The checkpoints were basic – water, Coke and homemade cakes with a few crisps. However the help and attention was second to none with volunteers falling over themselves to help fill your water bottles. Luckily, being half term in the UK, all of the seaside towns and villages were packed with visitors and full of shops and cafes selling fish and chips, crepes and snacks so it was easy to stock up on other food.

The first main checkpoint was basic but the homemade cakes were delicious.

I’d asked Amy not to join me at the 40 mile mark at Chesil Beach – I would have access to my drop bag and I didn’t want the problem of having to wait for her if the journey took a long time like I did last year at Champex. However she’d been overruled by our friends Mark and Christine who were keen to come out and visit, and it was a pleasant surprise to see their faces after a long day on the trail. I was still feeling fresh (or at least as fresh as you can be after 12 hours and 40 miles of trail) but the run in from Weymouth had been quite a monotonous drag and they were also a big help in getting me fed so I could concentrate on changing into dry clothes and tending to my feet. This was also the start of the 100km route and I’d arrived about an hour before that started so the place was buzzing with dozens of fresh runners.

Fed, watered and into a dry change of clothes I felt quite refreshed on the way out, although the road back towards Weymouth was pretty bleak and on my own it was a little depressing. However after 30 minutes or so I caught up with Dave, Nick and Mathieu who I’d ran with briefly earlier on in the race and settled in with them as we ran into the night.

As night fell, the first 100km runners gained on us and we stood by to let them speed through. The night dew was making the long grass really wet so we stopped to wring out our socks and try our best to keep our feet dry as we were only really just over the halfway point at this stage.

Mathieu mentioned that he was planning to sleep at the next checkpoint which we would get to at around 2am. However when we got there it turned out to be little more than a table of food in a car park with no shelter or anywhere soft to lay apart from the grass. He was ready to give up at that point and the organisers mentioned that he would have to wait for the broom wagon, which would take him to the next checkpoint at Lyme Regis, around 25km away. The rest of the group managed to convince him to keep running, at least until Lyme Regis where there would be hot food, and somewhere to sleep – so off we went.

Thankfully the hours of darkness at the beginning of June in England are pretty short, and by 4am it was starting to get light again which lifted our spirits, and eventually after around 22 hours and 120km of running we made it into Lyme Regis Rugby Club. There were already a few 100 mile runners ahead of us taking a quick sleep on the floor.

No sooner were we through the door and the volunteers were taking our water bottles to refill while we sat down, and fullfilling orders for tea and coffee. Out came the cook who asked how we wanted our chilli and potato wedges which were quickly brought out and despite my initial misgivings that it might not be the best food to have on an ultra, it did the trick.

Dave reminded us that what had once seemed like a generous 36 hour cutoff limit was getting closer and we weren’t moving hugely fast so it would be best not to hang around too long. Mathieu seemed happy to continue running and had given up on abandoning so we all quickly taped up our feet and got back on the trail.

After running through the night, the potato wedges and chilli, washed down with sweet strong tea at Lyme Regis Rugby Club were sublime. 

As the sun rose on the Saturday morning it was shaping up to be a beautiful summer’s day.

The descent into Seaton golf club and another checkpoint.

Mathieu, Davem Nick and I had now been running as a tight group for the beset part of 12 hours so we’d pretty much made an unspoken pact to stick with each and see this through.

More checkpoints, more villages and towns as the day wore on. By now as we answered the common question of “Where have you run from?” to passing tourists, the answer of ‘Poole’, 80 or so miles to the east prompted more and more incredulous looks. We also got lots of enthusiastic encouragement not just from tourists, but from other runners on the 100km and 50km trails as they sailed past, and then noticed our red numbers and shuffling gait.

After 100 miles, 60 of which we’d pushed through together, we’d made it onto Exmouth seafront.

Somebody taking a breather with a view.

Amy texted me to say that Mark and Christine had insisted on coming to offer more encouragement along the way, and would meet me at the Sidmouth checkpoint some 18km before the end, rather than just seeing me at the finish. I was glad of the friendly face at this point because the lack of sleep and general fatigue meant that I was feeling dizzy and disoriented, and the balls of my feet were so sore that I was struggling to keep up with the others.

The peaks in this race aren’t high, but there are lots of them and they’re very steep.

After changing into clean socks, I told the others to go ahead and I would catch them up – it was more of a Captain Oates style way to say there’s no way I’ll see you guys again and I think we all knew it. Amy is quite used to seeing me in ultras now and literally force-fed me salty chips, and then popped out and got me a bottle of Coke and a chocolate milkshake to take out on the next section. She also ran with me on this one – not hard as I wasn’t moving fast. However she made sure I drank and ate regularly, and also badgered me into running the downhills, and just generally having some company meant that just after Budleigh Salterton, where she switched places with Mark as my pacer, we caught up with Dave, Nick and Matthieu.

Grinding out the last few KMs with Amy

I was having a new lease of life but Nick, who had knee trouble for the whole race was struggling on the downhills. However we all stuck together and after the long drag into Exmouth we finally made it over the finish line as a group, with 90 minutes to spare until the cutoff.

Crossing the line as a group after 24 hours together, and 34 hours non-stop running. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk

 

Finisher’s buckles and very relieved faces

Relaxing the next day while waiting for a coffee and a bacon buttie.

As a first attempt at 100 miles I’m still buzzing from the experience of having made it through, especially when the clocked distance was closer to 110 miles. It was hard, and although I had some very negative patches, not once did I ever feel like giving up or that I couldn’t finish – it was really just a constant re-evaluation of how long it would take.

A large part of the success came down to the other competitors. Everyone along the route was really friendly, and then running with Nick, Dave and Mathieu for the final 24 hours we helped each other through – by encouragement, distraction, or just simply knowing to ignore each other when it was time to retreat into your own personal space.

Obviously my first goal was to complete the race and avoid a DNF. In the back of my mind, based on my CCC time I thought I might be able to complete in 28-30 hours so the 34 hours this took on first glance seems like a bit of a disappointment. However looking at the results, coming in (joint) 26th out of 59 starters the abandon rate seemed quite high, but I think that just underlines how deceptively tough the route was.

Jurassic Coast 100 Mile Results

Race Report: Ultra Trail de la Motte Chalancon 2016 – 86km

Its been a few years since I’ve run a ‘proper’ ultra so I was looking forward to getting a long distance race under my belt in 2016. Through social media I found out that a new race had been created fairly close to me – the Ultra Tour de la Motte Chalancon.At 86km and 4,500m of height gain it was a simialr profile to past ultras, and I thought it would be a good test to see if I could set myself up for some longer stuff later in the year.

I booked into a hotel at Remuzat, about 10 minutes drive from the start line and headed to the bib collection. I was a bit early so had to hang around and despite a few teething problems with the pickup process everyone was friendly and welcoming. Grabbing my goodie bag (Buff, a jar of local honey and some discount vouchers) I headed back to the hotel to eat my pasta, arrange my kit and get an early night,

It feels odd to set your alarm for 2.50am, but that’s what I did, and was successfuly up, changed and out of the door by 3.30am, managing to park in La Motte Chalancon and get to the start line just about in time.

The problem with 4am race starts is that nobody in their right mind wants to get up and at that time and watch 100 lunatics head off into the dawn at a very slow pace so consequently in a lot of races there’s not much crowd support. This was no different but the organisers made a big effort, playing music and having the marshalls burning red flares as we ran our way through the streets of the town.

We soon left the town and headed up the first climb – the usual strung out line of head torches as everyone settled into a rhythm. There’s never much to see and with the low cloud from the storms we had been having still clinging to the mountainsides, the view was fairly dull so I just got my head down and followed the feet of the runner in front.

The middle of July in the Provençale French Alps is hot. Luckily however, after day after day of 35ºC blue skies the rains came and the cooler weather arrived meaning the conditions were much cooler. It was still warm enough at the 4am start to run in t-shirt, and I liberally applied the SPF50 at the start, but hopefully heat stroke was not going to be a significant issue.

Unfortunately the downside to this was that at the top of the first climb after a couple of hours on the trail, we didn’t really get to see much of a dawn – just a murky twilight but gradually the views got clearer and clearer.

Up in the gloomy clouds at the top of the first series of climbs was a welcome aid station

 

I didn’t have any support crew at this race, so there was no opportunity to eat anything I either couldn’t carry mysef, or find at the food stops. Although the race was only 86km, it really would have helped if there had been the opportunity to leave a drop bag. I tend to find that French races don’t really offer this unless we’re talking about the very long events (e.g.. 100 milers). Since the weather forecast was poor, and I couldn’t carry all the food I wanted, being able to leave a change of shoes and some food at the halfway point would have been a big benefit.

As a result, I stuffed about a dozen energy bars and 8 or 9 gels into my race pack and figured I would take my chances with the aid stations. Unfortunately the food choices at the aid stops weren’t amazing (crisps, cheese, salami, crackers, apricots etc, with soup at later stops) so I probably ended up eating too many of my energy bars and gels, meaning I took on way too much sugar and I started getting digestion problems after about 60km.

 

The weather forecast predicted a fine morning with possible thunder storms in the afternoon, and the morning did turn out to be perfect running conditions, and after 8 hours I’d reached almost 50km into the race and got three or four major climbs out of the way. Just after mid day, at the highest point of the race, the heavens opened and huge globs of heavy rain came heaving down. This was quickly followed by enormous cracks of thunder and lightning – being on top of the highest mountain in the area was quite a terrifying place to be so I headed into the descent as quickly as possible.

Although we had clouds and thunderstorms the temperatures were still in the high 20s so a chance to cool off in a stream was very welcome.

 

Although I had a rain jacket, the undergrowth was suddenly so wet, that my feet and shorts were soon soaked from running through the bushes on the way down. At the bottom of the descent, which took maybe 90 minutes, I found myself in Remuzat, site of my hotel, and making my way into a barn to a loud round of applause (as all the runners got) from the assembled volunteers.

The barn was dry and warm, so I was able to at least change into a pair of socks from my pack, although they were pretty wet anyway. The organisers were holding back the runners because the ongoing storm was making it dangerous to head up the next mountain. We could hear lots of sirens as the gendarmes and fire service rushed by in the street outside – although I don’t believe it had anything to do with anyone involved in the race.

By this point I was starting to feel very sick. I really didn’t want to eat, and had barely eaten an energy bar in the last two hours. I forced myself to drink some of the noodle soup but that was about all I could face. After 20 minutes or so we were given the all clear but I think I wouldn’t have been too upset at that point if the event had been cancelled.

The rain had stopped and the sky seemed to be brightening up, although there were still distant rumbles of thunder. Getting moving again was difficult – I was cold and shivery and couldn’t get moving smoothly – my limbs felt stiff and the run along a river bank trail was difficult to get back into the swing.

Even worse was to come – the ‘trail’ moved sharply upwards, following the route of a waterfall. Streaks of orange paint showed the way, because we weren’t following a trail for most of the time but were simply crawling up slick rocks.

A couple of sections had via ferrata wires or fixed ropes in place and were necessary as losing your step could have ended badly. Some sections even had fixed ladders, but the rest of it was steep, stepped, slippery rocks.

Finally topping out on an undulating plateau, were still picking our way through slick rocks which made running difficult and dangerous and I cursed the organisers several times. However the biggest problem was that I was simply bonking – I’d taken on so little fuel in the last few hours that I was in danger of not being able to reel it back in.

I sat down on a rock and had a little word with myself – forced down an energy gel and almost vomitted. I think it would have been better if I had. That was basically the pattern until at around 10km to go, I got to the final aid station. A bit more magic soup and some words of encouragement from the organisers and were back out for what should really be a simple 10km, mostly downhill run to the finish.

Although my energy reserves were sapping at this point, I actually found the downhill single track quite easy and fun, and was able to keep a good pace, catching a few groups in front who had been way out of sight earlier. However we ran through some very claggy fire roads and the clay-like mud stuck to the soles of my shoes and wouldn’t shed, adding a lot of extra weight just when I needed it least.

Descending back towards La Motte Chalancon, there were a couple of (by now very swolen, fast running and silty) river crossings and a what seemed like never ending run through the streets of the town.

Just before 7pm I made it across the finish line with a time of 14:58:06, getting 44th (out of 84 starters) place. A small ceramic medal, and a finisher’s gilet were awarded at the end, and a complimentary meal at a local restaurant was available, although was so cold and tired at the end I just headed back to my hotel.

Overally this was a great race. The course was challenging with some exceptionally steep climbing in places. The organisers and volunteers were superb as is always the case with French races and the scenery is breathtaking despite being spoilt somewhat by the weather. On top of that, the race was worth 3 of the old style UTMB entry points (or 5 of the new ITRA points). I would definitely do the race again although there are so many other events on my bucket list that I’m a bit spoilt for choice.